Did you know that the Talmud names more demons than women?
This is the kind of fascinating and arcane information that author Maggie Anton learned while conducting research for her latest novel, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” in which she imagines the life of the unnamed woman mentioned most frequently in the central text of rabbinic Judaism.
Anton will tell how she went about bringing to life this exceptional woman — the sorceress daughter of a great rabbi of the Talmud — during talks at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco and Congregation Beth El in Berkeley.
The author — known for her ability to blend Jewish history, esoteric Jewish law and a strong feminist sensibility — faced new challenges in writing this book. For her popular and award-winning “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy set in
11th-century France, Anton was able to access archival records of France’s Jewish community dating back to the early Middle Ages.
But this time, to animate a young female sorceress in 3rd-century Persian-ruled Babylonia, Anton had to do most of her digging in the Talmud itself, including many obscure passages about magic and incantations. This kind of work was not completely new to the author, a former chemist who has been studying Talmud intensively for many years, but it did amount to a more difficult research process.
“The Talmud is self-referential,” Anton said in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles, “and it has no index.” There were a few excellent reference books about the sages to which she could turn, but Anton’s task was mostly to meticulously plow through the entire Talmud with her study partner three times in three years looking for passages about Rav Hisda’s daughter, her two husbands (rival rabbis) and incantation bowls. “Those last sections are definitely not ones they study in yeshiva,” Anton noted.
Learning about the incantation bowls was an important part of Anton’s bringing all the women in the story to life. She wanted to use authentic women’s names from the period, and found a treasure trove of them mentioned in association with the bowls and their associated spells.
Fans of Anton’s fast-paced and absorbing writing will notice a difference in her new book. “This time, I didn’t even know my character’s name, so to avoid that problem, I decided to write in first person,” she said. “There’s no omniscient narrator, so this gave me the opportunity to get deeper into the protagonist’s feeling and thinking.”
Developing her relationship with the main character was different than in the past, Anton said. “As I was writing ‘Rashi’s Daughters,’ I had a big attachment. I was very invested, because the characters reflected parts of me. I brought my own experiences and sensibilities to the characters.
“In this case,” she said, “it’s more that I was stepping into Rav Hisda’s daughter’s shoes.
“The status of women was terrible at the time, and I am lucky that I got to write about a woman who occupied a unique position, as she was in the upper strata. She has slaves, which is something abhorrent to me. But I had to put away my 21st-century view and get into her mindset.”
Anton also had to enter a world in which demons, magic and incantations were very real to people. It turned out that the timing was just right, with incantation bowls having been dug up by archeologists after the recent Iraq War. “There is cutting-edge research on historical Jewish magic going on right now,” she said.
Anton also found that on the back of her “Rashi’s Daughters” success, many contemporary Talmud scholars were happy to assist her. “It was a pleasant surprise to be able to pick the brains of the world’s experts in my field,” Anton said of the 20 scholars she approached, including Rachel Adler at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, and Judith Hauptman and Richard Kalmin of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Anton plans to continue bringing women out of the shadows of Jewish history and religious literature into fiction. Stay tuned for “Rav Hisda’s Daughter, Book II: Enchantress.”
Maggie Anton will be at Congregation Beth Sholom, 301 14th Ave., S.F. on Friday, Feb. 8 and Saturday, Feb. 9; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb 10 at Congregation Beth El, 1301 Oxford St., Berkeley. Free.http://catalog.lehrhaus.org/course/2013/winter/T300-CBE/
“Rav Hisda’s Daughter, Book I: Apprentice” by Maggie Anton (480 pages, Plume, $16)